By Chinedu Eze
On Tuesday, April 18, a day before the scheduled reopening of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, two aircraft landed at the airport. That was six weeks after the airport was closed for the rehabilitation of its runway, which had become a safety risk due to years of deterioration. The Minister of State, Aviation, Senator Hadi Sirika, was in the first aircraft that landed, while the second was Ethiopian Airlines latest aircraft, Airbus A350, debuting on that route.
With the landing of these flights it was obvious that the federal government had fulfilled its promise to reopen the airport exactly after six weeks after its closure. To further convince Nigerians, Sirika had staked his job, saying he would resign if government did not meet the target date. This excited many Nigerians.
During the past six weeks, economic activities at the Federal Capital Territory had ebbed. In fact, some economists had projected that if the closure of the Abuja airport lasted another two weeks the economy in Abuja would literally crawl on its knees. Possibly, government saw the signs and decided not to delay the reopening of the airport and kept to the April 19 promise. Considering the proclivity of government to defy and trivialise targeted dates in project completion, appointments and others, this is considered a rarity.
However, THISDAY learnt that the massive turnaround envisaged on the runway was reduced to what could be completed in six weeks. A pilot who flew to the airport in a helicopter when the repair work was going on told THISDAY that the upper part of the runway was scrapped and patched, “except the areas that had serious depression, like the places most of the aircraft hit the ground on landing that they did concrete work. But what they did would last for some time.”
Many Nigerians were impressed by the fact that the federal government kept its words by reopening the airport on schedule. There were also chest beating by top government officials over the timely completion of repairs at the airport runway.
The Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, noted that the timely completion of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport runway repair, after a six-week closure, had shown the ability of the Buhari administration to rise to any occasion, irrespective of how daunting the challenge might be. In a statement issued in Addis Ababa, on Wednesday, the minister described the ability of the government to complete the reconstruction of the runway within the stipulated time, despite doomsday predictions, as a remarkable achievement. He said the precision with which everything concerning the closure of the arport and the temporary relocation to the Kaduna airport was handled by the relevant ministries and the security agencies was the clearest indication yet that Nigeria could tackle any challenge.
Mohammed noted that the rehabilitation of the Abuja-Kaduna road by the Ministry of Power, Works and Housing, the provision of non-invasive but effective security along the highway by the security agencies and the perfect handling, by the Ministry of Transportation, of the massive logistics involved in ensuring that the Kaduna airport was able to handle such a large number of flights, all showed that Nigerians had what it takes to make the country a proud member of the international community.
Commenting on the reopening, Sirika said, “We thank Allah for His benevolence. We are happy and thank Mr. President, His Excellency, for his support, guidance and leadership. And I also want to thank my colleagues who did it all, the media and the Nigeria people for bearing with us during the time of the closure.”
The aviation minister said on Tuesday, “The runway has been completed and it is in perfect shape. I just landed now on the same runway. Final exercise, the friction test was carried out this morning and they found out that it meets international standard, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO)’s standard and Recommended Practices (SARPs). So the runway is good, perfect.”
In reaction to the scheduled reopening of the Abuja airport after six weeks of closure, the industry think-tank, Aviation Round Table (ART), commended the federal government for keeping its words.
ART stated, “We in ART salute the Minister of Aviation and his agencies for living true to its promise to deliver Abuja runway on schedule as we count down to 19 April. Measurable deliverable remains our challenge in the sector and we are quite pleased the minister even put his job on the line on the project during ART breakfast meeting with himself and the information minister.
“We appreciate the Presidency for giving the essential and necessary support to make this happen on schedule. It is our prayer that such purposeful actions are sustained in the sector as we demand that aviation delivers one per cent of Nigeria’s GDP by 2020 as against the present meagre 0.4 per cent. We demand for measurable growth on the airline side and the airports.”
While the federal government spent huge resources to prepare the Kaduna airport as alternative during the six weeks closure, the airlines suffered huge financial losses and were weighed down by logistic limitations, especially at the beginning of the movement to Kaduna from Abuja. There was massive drop in passenger traffic and the airlines spent more money on fuel because Lagos to Abuja, the most lucrative and busiest route, takes less time than Lagos to Kaduna.
In the first three weeks of operations in Kaduna, Nigerian airlines said they lost about N10 billion. The loss, according to the airlines, was because of low passenger traffic, more fuel consumption and increased remuneration cost due to extra flight time for the crew. Some of the operators, passengers and airport officials who spoke to THISDAY said passenger traffic had significantly reduced because many people, who did not want to go through Kaduna, suspended their trips to Abuja pending the reopening of the airport.
Passengers, who had been travelling through the alternative airport, complained that it was cumbersome, especially with the long bus ride from the Kaduna airport to Abuja, which took at least three hours.
An operator of a major airline told THISDAY that due to the envisaged losses, his airline had decided to cut down its operations and use part of the six weeks period the Abuja airport was closed to send the airline’s crew for simulator training.
The operator, who chose to remain anonymous, said, “Airlines are incurring huge losses now. The N10 billion projected loss in the first three weeks is more like it because the suspension of flights to Abuja cut down the traffic by 40 per cent and even the remaining 60 per cent is underperforming. Those airlines that were generating about N100 million daily cannot even generate N50 million now and you still have to pay for insurance, consume the same amount of fuel, if not more, carry out the maintenance of the aircraft and pay the crew.
“It is wrong to put pressure on airlines to operate from Kaduna because it is purely a commercial decision by the airlines. As a newspaper company, if your newspaper does not sell in Maiduguri, will you carry two truckloads of your newspapers to that city and what do you expect when you take your goods there? Airlines should have been allowed to take their decision. Some airlines like Ethiopia Airlines decided to play politics. That is a government airline; not every airline has the kind of privilege that they have.”
A former top government official told THISDAY that the huge amount spent in relocating operations from Abuja to Kaduna, the inconveniences and heavy financial losses incurred by airlines would have been averted if government had built a second runway at the Abuja airport. He said the issue of a second runway was long overdue.
According to the former official, who did not want to be named, “From the road reconstruction to the deployment of security operatives, the Kaduna airport project must have cost over N3.2 billion. They spent billions because all the vehicles from Abuja to Kaduna and vice-versa were escorted by security operatives in their pick-up vans. So you can estimate how much that cost the federal government. When I travelled from Abuja to Kaduna to board a flight to Lagos, we were escorted by two policemen in Hilux van until we arrived. All the vehicles that left were escorted. They would put road safety at the back; they would put escort in front. The money spent on these activities is crazy.”
He noted that the resurfacing of the runway in Abuja cost about N9.6 billion, saying, “They just scrapped the runway and put a new one. If they were to do a new runway they would have spent three times more than that. They just scrapped the surface of the runway and rebuilt it. Before, they said they were going to remove everything, including the concrete base but nobody did that.”
The source said the rehabilitation of the runway would have been postponed but because the economy of Abuja was grinding to a halt, “they abandoned the plan to excavate the whole runway to rebuild and did what was possible that could be completed in six weeks, which was the mere scrapping of the runway to patch it. If they spent about N800 million on bus ride from Kaduna airport to Abuja airport, it means they must have spent about N1 billion on security, because they escorted every vehicle that left. They paid them allowances. The cost of logistics and others was huge.”
But the airlines are happy that Abuja airport has reopened. Air travellers have also breathed a sigh of relief, knowing they can now make their straight trips to Abuja.